Stereotypes focus of 2012 Common Reading, faculty address

Stereotypes and their effect on society were addressed Aug. 13 during Rice University’s annual O-Week Faculty Address and again Aug. 16 during the discussion of the selection for this year’s Common Reading Program, “Whistling Vivaldi.”

Psychology Professor Mikki Hebl delivered the faculty address and offered words of wisdom as she encouraged students to look past cursory interactions that can affect the way they look at others.

During her remarks, she shared a personal experience – confusing one student with another who had the same name – where she was forced to confront her initial impressions of the student.

“I labeled, I stereotyped and I was ready to use those labels for all future interactions,” she said. “But at the chance encounter I had, I had to transfer all of my expectations from one [student] to the other. And when I gave her a second chance, she simply dazzled.”

Hebl, a social psychologist who studies diversity and discrimination, pointed out to students that everyone holds expectations and stereotypes of others based on labels and behavior. She told students that they have “enormous power” to shape the lives of others based on expectations they hold for one another.

“Be aware and respectful of the expectations you have for certain individuals, and realize that having and stating that you have high expectations for everyone can simply create those expectations to be fulfilled,” she said.

The conversation continued Aug. 16 when small groups of freshmen gathered around campus to discuss the text chosen for this year’s Common Reading Program, ”Whistling Vivaldi.”

In the book, author Claude Steele shares through a number of personal stories the experiments and studies that show how exposing subjects to stereotypes impairs their performance in the area affected by the stereotype. For example, telling a group of female math majors who are about to take a math test that women are considered naturally inferior to men at math might have a negative effect on their test results. The book offers insight into how people form their senses of identity and ultimately lays out a plan for mitigating the negative effects of “stereotype threat” and reshaping American identities.

Steele will be in campus to discuss his book Aug. 21.

In the small-group sessions, students discussed the book and its notions of stereotypes in an hourlong discussion with their classmates.

“I took a course in high school very similar to this, so I’m familiar with the book and what it is saying,” Baker College freshman Glenn Baginski said. “The discussion itself is obviously important — talking about diversity and, in this case, stereotypes and their effect on us.”

Of Rice’s Common Reading Program, Baginski said, “This is great. This is exactly why I picked Rice. I’m very much looking forward to Dr. Steele’s speech. I hope he can offer a little more insight into some of these ideas.

Currently in its seventh year, Rice’s Common Reading program was established to welcome students to the Rice intellectual community, stimulate conversations across the campus community on pressing issues of the day and introduce new students to the critical inquiry, scholarship and civility they will encounter – and learn to practice – at Rice. The program includes faculty-led discussions and a lecture by the book’s author. The Office of the Dean of Undergraduates sponsors the program.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.